In a Game of Inches, Every Play Takes on Extra Importance

Photo by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

In a Game of Inches, Every Play Takes on Extra Importance In baseball, a “break” is often the difference between a W or L, but star players can also make an impact as well. 

As great as the eight-team tournament of this MLB playoffs was set up to be, we’ve already seen the differences in talent between the favorites and underdogs. 

The Boston Red Sox have been outmatched in every facet by the Houston Astros until today. The New York Yankees had the series tied — obliterating the likely AL Cy Young Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians — until they didn’t. The Los Angeles Dodgers pounced on the Arizona Diamondbacks after their rotation was weakened by use of their top two starters in the Wild Card game.

The Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs were forecast to be the tightest matchup of the four due to the similarity of (extreme) talent between the two clubs. After two games, there is little reason to believe anything has changed. While there may very well be three sweeps in the other series, this one feels like it is capable of going the distance.

It is some high misfortune the Nationals paired up with the defending World Champions in the first matchup of this year’s playoffs. To add to the woe, the defending Cy Young and likely repeat winner, Max Scherzer, did not take the mound to start off the series. As great as the 2017 season was, earning them home field advantage, any leg up they received from that had been seemingly erased heading into Game 1.

What these first two games have taught us is the margin of error can be so small, either team needs to take every advantage of any chance they receive. 

Every game has a handful of moments where one team gets a “break.” Most often, its the team who takes advantage of the most breaks which will come out victorious. But if the team who has the break go against them allows it to influence their play, that’s where many games are won or lost.

Friday’s game couldn’t have started off better for Washington. The term “no-hit stuff” is thrown around a lot, and there have been many no-nos throughout the years where a pitcher wasn’t exactly missing bats. There was no hyperbole regarding Stephen Strasburg at the beginning of the game — his stuff was un-hittable. He made the MVP-contending duo of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo look absolutely hopeless in their first inning plate appearances.

On the other side of the ball, Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs looked anything but. Trea Turner led off the inning with a groundball right to the shortstop — but he scalded it at 106 mph. Bryce Harper started the offense off lacing a single to right at 100.1 mph, putting a runner on in front of Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy

Rendon was fooled by Hendricks, dribbling one back to the pitcher, but at the least it moved Harper to second for Cubs-killer Murphy. Murphy laced one at 108 mph — just right at the first baseman Rizzo. A hit 82 percent of the time, according to Statcast, which would have certainly given the Nats a giant edge at 1–0, was for naught. The Cubs caught the first break, but Washington had to at least come away with some confidence they had the Chicago pitcher figured out.

After another inning of prime Strasburg, the Nationals had another chance in the bottom half. After two outs, Hendricks hit Matt Wieters with a pitch and Michael Taylor followed it up with what turned out to be one of the best contacts off Cubs pitching all day. But in another bit of misfortune, those (damned) NL rules brought Strasburg up to the plate, ending any shot of success.

While Strasburg kept firing innings of no-hit stuff (Willson Contreras’s hot shot corralled by Murphy the one true exception), Hendricks either found his stride, or the Nationals lost whatever edge they had against him. Zeroes filled up the scoreboard, waiting for another moment to strike.

Leading off the sixth inning, the Cubs came up on the fortunate side of another 50–50 play. Javier Báez hit a relatively harmless ground ball down the third base line, Rendon nonchalantly scooped it up, perhaps not sure if it was fair or foul. The umpire called it fair — although looking at the screenshot below from Statcast, which is a system of in-stadium cameras makes it look to appear to be the opposite. Rendon still had a chance at the play, but muffed the exchange to his throwing hand, and Báez ended up on first.

The next hitter was Hendricks (another break), who laid down a bunt (what he practices at the plate the most). It did appear to me the first baseman Ryan Zimmerman could have possibly had a play throwing the runner out at second, but the attempt would have likely been unwise. The Cubs, still without a base hit, had a runner in scoring position. However Strasburg, still to give up a hit, was on the mound.

Ben Zobrist could not get the job done, flying out to center. As the postseason often gives us, this brought the dream matchup of the electric Strasburg vs the reigning MVP Kris Bryant.

I made reference to Strasburg making Bryant look hopeless in his first PA, the graphic above shows his attack plan — a fastball to set up two offspeed pitches. The second PA he started Bryant with a curve off the plate, then threw a low fastball before bringing one high and inside. He then threw an incredible curve in the zone, and followed it up with a changeup to strike Bryant out again.

The third PA, Strasburg used Bryant’s aggression against him throwing another up-and-in fastball which was fouled away. An inside changeup was also fouled away on the next pitch. One would have thought it likely Strasburg would throw another offspeed for the put-away pitch, and perhaps the battery believed Bryant would be thinking the same thing. They instead decided to go with a fastball, presumably in the wrong spot to add to the mistake, and Bryant made them pay. 

The Cubs got their break, the Nationals made an additional mistake, and the tie was broken. (I do want to give some credit to Bryant here, he certainly did not miss). 

To make matters worse, Harper came up with Bryant’s base hit firing home, ignoring the cut-off man (in his postgame comments he said he just missed him), allowing the hitter to get an extra base, putting him in scoring position.

It’s hard to say if Harper was hindered by his leg injury, or maybe his poor decision on the throw was weighing on his mind, but when Rizzo’s ball was hit the next PA within reach, the play could not be made by the Nationals right fielder. With the extra base given to him, Bryant was able to score easily.

An error (either by umpire or Rendon), one bad pitch selection, and some subpar outfield defense had given the Cubs a two run lead. Too many unfortunate events all in one sequence had given Chicago the first game of this razor-thin tight series.

Of course the game wasn’t over in the sixth inning, but it may as well have been. The Nationals did not get a base hit the rest of the game off Hendricks, nor the very solid Cubs’ bullpen duo of Carl Edwards Jr. and Wade Davis.

In Game 2, both sides received some good fortune early on in the game when each got on the scoreboard early. Rendon barely put one fair over the right field wall, a 349 foot shot according to Statcast. 

The baseball gods evened the playing field when Contreras put up a moon shot clearing the fence in left field. The Cubs catcher’s home run was measured at a 45 degree launch angle; according to Statcast, the highest angled home run all season was 47 degrees, not a lot of baseballs hit that high are able to leave the stadium. 

(Interesting note: the highest launch angle home run all season was hit on September 7 by Tommy Joseph to left field at Nationals Park. Wind tunnel?)

Rizzo and Bryant certainly didn’t hit cheapies in the fourth off Gonzalez, but the homerun by Bryant certainly didn’t get out by much. The fence is rather high, and there was of course some controversy caused by the fan’s reach of a catch, but all three of the game’s home runs to this point might not go out on another day.

Down by two runs, it certainly felt the Nationals’ offense went back in the hole they fell into in Game 1 after they hit the same deficit. The bottom of the fifth left a lot of people banging their head against the wall after another missed opportunity. They finally put men on base against Lester, but nothing to show for it as Turner struck out with the bases loaded to end the inning. 

But despite not receiving too many breaks going their way, the Nationals offense finally decided to not sit around and wait for one. Adam Lind, in his first career postseason plate appearance was able to spray a base hit (don’t see that every often) against the very tough Edwards. 

And then Bryce happened. The announcers brought up the fact the Cubs would have likely brought in a left-hander if Harper was at full strength. This was probably not a well-researched argument as lefties had put up a .117/.244/.193 against Edwards on the season. In 129 left-handed hitters faced this season, Edwards had only allowed one barrel (Curtis Granderson on June 14). 

Harper’s blast was just a great player seizing the moment (although Edwards pitch might have caught more of the plate than he desired). 

And then Zim happened — after Murphy had a great approach. Cubs manager Joe Maddon received some criticism for putting his lefty Mike Montgomery against the right-handed Zimmerman, specifically with his closer Davis available. Montgomery, like Edwards, also sported fantastic reverse splits — righties hit .212/.315/.316 against him with 11 barrels allowed in 390 hitters faced (2.8 percent). 

Of course I have to bring up another home run barely clearing the fence, but this just happened to be what Saturday’s game was all about. This series will be determined time-and-time-again by inches. This particular contest went Washington’s way, but we are still a long ways away from determining anything in this likely classic series.

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